Too little, too late? Congress may fail to move from oil spill to a robust energy bill

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | July 23, 2010 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

After decades of scientific data gathering, years of growing public and business support and more than three months of an unmitigated environmental catastrophe, it is reasonable to expect that citizens and leaders would all support a paradigm shift in U.S. energy policy.

In fact, even before BP’s Gulf oil disaster began, President Obama and Congress promised legislation that would transform how we produce and consume energy in this country and, in the process, save consumers money, create new jobs, strengthen national security and reduce pollution.

Incredulously, we learned yesterday that the U.S. Senate is only planning to consider a narrow package of energy-related bills to respond to the oil spill and lay some groundwork for energy efficiency with:

  • offshore drilling reform measures to “hold BP accountable” for the spill
  • the “Home Star” program of incentives for energy efficiency upgrades
  • incentives for converting trucks to cleaner-burning (but still fossil-based) natural gas; and
  • the re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The final piece is, perhaps, the most disturbing because the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a program that funnels a small percentage of offshore oil and gas lease proceeds to supporting conservation projects in national parks, forests and wildlife areas. Re-authorizing this fund ‘as is’ is like making a deal with the Devil: it is using “dirty money” from risky and environmentally-damaging offshore drilling to protect natural areas, and it helps to ensures that we maintain the energy status quo for a bit longer.

Notably absent from this overly-modest legislative package: a plan to reduce carbon pollution, a renewable energy standard, requiring utilities to generate a percentage of power generation from renewable energy sources, and the “Green Jobs” energy tax incentives that both the House and Senate tax-writing committees have been preparing.  Back in May, SACE’s Executive Director, Stephen Smith, noted that without the tax incentives for biofuel production, 80% of the industry has been sitting idle despite a growing market for the product.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for this legislative stalemate: Big Oil and Big Coal companies have camped out on Capitol Hill with well-paid lobbyists defending the status quo, conservative lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties wring their hands and say “now is not the time” or “we don’t have the votes,” and the White House offers occasional and vague speeches about needing energy reform without using the bully pulpit to bring the strength of the American people to the debate.

The hour is late, but there is still time and a desperate need for this Congress to address clean energy and climate reform by limiting carbon pollution and investing in clean energy sources.  If the U.S. Senate truly does fail to follow the lead of the U.S. House of Representatives, then America will continue to send $1 billion a day in energy dollars overseas to buy oil, China will continue racing to the top in a clean energy economy, and pollution will continue to increase here at home.

The problems of a sluggish economy, an over-dependence on fossil fuels and a warming world will not go away simply because elected officials refuse to engage.  We sent those elected officials to our state capitals and our national capitol to be leaders – and the need for energy-policy leadership has never been greater.  Will the Senate slink off to the August Congressional recess with a whimper or show courage in the coming weeks to openly debate and then correct our dysfunctional energy economy? Time will tell, but time grows short.

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